Volume 22, Number 14 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Aug. 14 - 20, 2009
Danger in the sky
On Tuesday, the Piper “Lance” single-propeller plane involved in Saturday’s terrifying midair collision over the Hudson River off W. 14th St. was lifted from the river bottom. Recovered with the plane were the bodies of the last two victims of the fateful accident — still trapped inside the fuselage.
Sunday morning, the helicopter that had taken off from the W. 30th St. heliport carrying five Italian tourists for a brief sightseeing flight, was hauled from the river’s murky depths, again, with more bodies — four — inside. A total of nine people died in the collision, the worst air accident in New York City since November 2001, when Flight 587 crashed in Rockaway, killing all 265 aboard.
Following this accident, we’ve all learned more about the degree to which small aircraft, flying under 1,100 feet over the river, are basically completely on their own — and dependent on sighting other aircraft visually — in what is basically totally unregulated airspace. This sort of accident, tragically, was just waiting to happen.
There needs to be far greater air control of the Hudson River corridor below 1,100 feet. Although radar is ineffective in tracking aircraft at these low altitudes — because of the city’s tall buildings — the least that must be done is to require pilots to have their radios on and tuned in to and communicating with air control. The pilot in last Saturday’s collision was out of contact with air control for only slightly more than a minute, but that’s when he rammed into the rear of the copter.
The ill-fated helicopter pilot involved in Saturday’s collision may have done nothing wrong; at the last minute, another copter pilot at the 30th St. heliport reportedly tried in vain to warn him of the danger fast approaching him from behind. The fact is, however, that West Side residents and park advocates have rightly long called for the heliport to get out of the Hudson River Park.
First, there is the wind, noise and diesel-fuel pollution from the copters’ engines, all of which negatively impact parkgoers in Hudson River Park and nearby residents. In a worst-case disaster scenario, there’s always the real risk of a copter crashing into Hudson River Park or onto the West Side Highway or into a residential building.
It took a lawsuit by Friends of Hudson River Park to force a settlement last year under which the W. 30th St. heliport agreed to halve the number of its tourist flights — from 25,000 to 12,500 annually — as of last month. Also under the settlement, tourist helicopter flights from W. 30th St. must cease by April 1, 2010. This will probably mean a cut in revenue for the Trust, which currently gets $1 million in annual rent from the heliport. But there are far better commercial uses for the park that also generate revenue, with far less quality-of-impact cost.
The settlement also says that commercial, government and emergency helicopter flights would continue at W. 30th St. until the end of 2014 or until a new heliport is in operation on a nearby pier. We were more encouraged on Tuesday, however, when Noreen Doyle, the Hudson River Park’s vice president, said the Trust is committed to “the complete relocation of the heliport by December 2012.”
The presence of these nonessential, tourist helicopters — as we saw last weekend — increases exponentially the danger in the Hudson corridor.
In short, it’s time to ban the tourist chopper flights. There are many reasons why tourists flock to New York City. Helicopter flights don’t top the list, we’re sure — and ending them won’t cause any drop-off in tourism. An IMAX “aerial tour” of the city would be just as fun — and 100 percent safer.